Ep 04: Annie Laurie Gaylor | Exploring religious freedom

(Alastair Lichten) Hello and welcome to episode 4 of the
National Secular Society’s podcast and Part 4 in our series Exploring Religious Freedom.
I’m Alastair Lichten, Head of Education at the NSS, and in this series I’m
speaking with a variety of experts and activists about religious freedom.
What does it mean?
What are its limits? And how might it be abused?
Listener, I’m gonna give you a little peek behind the curtain here and let you know that
today’s episode comes a bit out of order. I like to space the episodes out
regularly, but sometimes you just need to grab an interview with a subject when
you can, so in this interview I spoke with Anne Laurie Gaylor and you’ll
hear us mentioning Religious Freedom Day in the US, which is on the 16th of January.
Anne Laurie Gaylor is a co-founder and co-president of the American based
Freedom From Religion Foundation. I’ll be back at the end of the interview with
some reflections and closing remarks.
Enjoy. Annie Laurie, welcome to the NSS podcast
(Annie Laurie Gaylor) Thank you for inviting me. (AL) You’re very welcome.
You’re co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
I wonder if you can start by telling the audience a little bit about the FFRF,
and how you came to be a secularist activist. (ALG) Yes, I am a co-founder of the
Freedom From Religion Foundation, and I co-founded it with my mother, Anne Nicole
Gaylor, back in 1976, when I was a college student, and she was a very
well-known feminist activist in Wisconsin, and nationally, and our
eyes were opened to the dangers of religion and government because she, in
her work to legalize contraception and abortion in the state of Wisconsin, and
we realized that the only organized opposition was religious in nature, and
they were trying to inflict their dogma on everyone else through civil law.
And she was asked to go national with the group in 78 and I became co-president
with Dan Barker in about 2005 I think. And we are in our 41st year, and we have
rectified many violations of the separation of church and state, taken
over 70 lawsuits, won most of them. We have grown from the original two of us
to over 31,000 members in North America, and our members are mainly non theists:
atheists, agnostics, skeptics, rationals. We like to joke that we don’t care what you
call yourself, we all disbelieve in the same gods. So we have two purposes:
– to keep religion out of government, to defend the constitutional wall of
separation between church and state that’s in the American Constitution, and
– to educate the public about non-theism, to promote the Enlightenment,
to promote the free thought point of view and represent free thinkers, especially
interested in keeping religion out of social policy. (AL) So the FFRF advocates for
religious freedom and the separation of church and state, but you come at that
from a specifically non religious perspective. (ALG) Yes we do. Although we do
represent religious people in some of our lawsuits and some of our legal complaints.
(AL) What do you think the strengths and weaknesses of that approach are?
(ALG) The strength is that we are purists. We don’t get, we don’t have a
conflict that suddenly we’re taking a position that our church is going to not
like, and that’s one of the things that has freed the Freedom From Religion
Foundation, to be absolute in our definition of separation of church and
state, and to take some lawsuits that some of the other groups, that have
religious ties, would not be willing to take. Because churches are not comfortable with them.
And one of the weaknesses, of course, is that we’re a great minority in the United States. But since FFRF was founded, of course, we’ve seen enormous growth in the number of seculars. And it’s never been a better time, in the United States, to be without religion. We have a lot more company and
there’s about 24% of the population identifies as non-religious,
not necessarily as atheists, and we’re seeing much higher numbers among what’s called Generation Z – young people – in their teenage years.
We’re seeing up to 36%, and 21% of them actually
saying they’re atheist or agnostic. So that’s a huge sea change here in this country,
where we’re finally catching up with the free thinkers in in the UK and in much of Europe. But, because we are a minority, I think that, of course, that makes it harder, and sometimes people will say “Well why don’t you just work
for separation of church and state, and then anybody of any belief could join you?”
And this is true, but we like to point out there are other groups for
believers to join, such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
And so, you know, I think the more people fighting the same problem,
chipping away at the same problem, from different perspectives, makes our movement stronger. (AL) So this is part of a series of discussions about religious freedom. How does freedom from religion relate to that?
(ALG) Well we believe, most sincerely, that there can be no true religious liberty without the freedom to dissent. You cannot dissent once there’s religion
in government. Watch out! And then, invariably, persecution follows, as Thomas Paine wrote so many years ago. We also feel that secularism is a
prerequisite for women’s rights, for LGBTQ rights, for unfettered science,
which, you know, stem-cell research, is still greatly fettered here in the United States.
You can’t really have true liberty if you have religion in government.
(AL) There might be a perception that freedom of religion is for the religious
and that freedom from religion is for the irreligious. Is that fair and, if not, is that a problem for those advocating for the separation of church and state?
(ALG) I think there’s definitely a perception among many Americans that freedom of religion does not encompass any freedom to dissent, or freedom for atheists or agnostics . But when you look at the word “of”and “from”, they’re really the same word, you know, in French. “De” means “of”, “de” means “from”.
The concepts go together, and in the United States we have the First
Amendment of the Bill of Rights which says Congress shall make no law
respecting an establishment of religion. That’s the Establishment Clause that’s
interpreted to have a wall of separation between church and state. But the second
prong is prohibiting the free exercise thereof, and that’s the freedom of religion.
And so the two things go together. And, really, what the First Amendment is about,
what religious liberty is about, is about freedom of conscience.
We all have freedom of conscience, to decide whether to accept or reject religion.
That’s what we’re fighting for. (AL) We were originally scheduled to have this meeting on January 16th, which is religious freedom day in the US.
I think one of the biggest challenges facing organizations, like the FFRF and the NSS,
is a sort of redefining of religious freedom in hands of, not exclusively, but largely reactionary groups, as being about the freedom to impose religion, or an unlimited freedom that overrides other rights. What do you think we can do about this, what you might call might call, a distorted version of religious freedom? (ALG) It is one of the biggest fights that we
have here in the United States, and, of course, Religious Freedom Day is the
anniversary of the issuance of the Virginia statute for religious liberty,
written by Thomas Jefferson. And that became the cornerstone that led to the
First Amendment in the United States and actually often the the main text of it,
the most important paragraph of it, is repeated almost word for word in
probably about thirty five state constitutions, that no citizen shall be compelled
to attend, to direct, or support, any place of worship or support
any ministry or religious teachers. What makes the point about what you are
saying, what the evidence of that, is that the religious right is turning, is
weaponizing this very date, this anniversary. They’re trying to turn
Religious Freedom Day into a day that celebrates taking away religious liberty.
This has all been organized and orchestrated by the religious right,
to turn this anniversary on its head. This is exactly what is happening in the United States.
We are seeing courts, even, and not just the religious right, use language that is appalling. We just had some arguments, by the Trump administration, against the contraceptive
mandate. This has been one of the biggest religious freedom issues in the United States, because we had the Hobby Lobby decision, by the Supreme Court, that said that Obamacare’s contraceptive mandate, that said that women workers have to be given contraceptive appointments without extra penalty. And the Hobby Lobby decision, by the Supreme Court, said that, if they had a religious objection, employers could actually veto this kind of health care, or what kind of contraception women workers choose. It was a horrible decision, and they’re still arguing for this, and they are using the language that we use at the Freedom From Religion Foundation,
saying that employers have the right, under freedom of conscience, to dictate to employees what kind of contraception they may, or may not, use. They’re using the same language we’ve been using for years.
It’s incredible. (AL) So might this be a case where some people’s religious freedom needs to be restricted or limited in order to protect the religious freedom of others, the religious freedom to manifest your
belief, that you don’t like contraceptives, bumps up against other people’s religious freedoms or indeed freedom from religion? (ALG) Yes. I mean, they have the religious freedom to avoid or essue any kind of contraception that they want That protects their freedom of conscience.
They don’t have the right to force their contraceptive choices on others,
especially their employees, and especially when it’s a corporation it
isn’t even a church. The Hobby Lobby ruling was a disastrous ruling, which we have, you know, protested vociferously, and it has led to quite a groundswell of opposition.
Whereas fighting we’re still duking this out, but there’s no question, there’s some famous quotes, you know, your your freedoms and my nose.
I mean, you can’t swing your your fist at somebody’s nose and say that’s your freedom.
You can see that we have checks to so-called religious liberty. We don’t allow polygamous marriages in the United States, for example. We don’t, in theory, allow child brides. You can’t commit crimes in the name of religion, although they happen frequently. And that’s not justification.
So of course there have to be checks and balances. But what the Religious Right and the Trump administration is saying is that if you are religious the rules don’t apply to you. And not only that, but you’re allowed
to force your religious views on others. (AL) If that is someone’s view of what religious freedom means, and, obviously, I think we hold quite a philosophically similar view of what religious freedom actually means, how can we resolve these two understandings? (ALG) Well, I think through education and persuasion and common sense. You know, it would be, like, if at the Freedom From Religion
Foundation, we said “we’re all atheists here and you’re not allowed to get pregnant,
you’re gonna have to have an abortion”. That’s our religious freedom. It’s absurd. I think you have to show examples
of how absurd it would be if we forced our views on religious people.
And more education about why the United States was the first among nations.
I mean talking to people in this country, to separate religion from
government it’s something that we should be proud of, and for years we have seen
it stigmatized and we have seen public officials make remarks against it.
It’s like they are even afraid to say anything that is pro separation of church and state.
We have lost a lot of ground since Robert Kennedy, as a candidate, felt compelled to make his famous speech, before Houston ministers, saying
I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is
absolute. And he went on in great depth and detail to say why religion should
not be in government. We don’t see anybody saying this anymore.
There’s been quiter a disinformation campaign. And even among progressive causes it always seems like the secular principle gets to the bottom of the list of to Do’s.
You know, first there’s protect abortion rights, and then there’s protect LGBT, and
this, and that, and the other, and nobody’s thinking about the overall picture, that
so many of these attacks, are really attacks on secularism.
(AL) So what do you think the biggest challenge is to freedom of and from religion are today?
(ALG) The biggest challenges, I think, are conveying why we adopted it, why it’s essential for secularism and freedom to prosper. I think maybe the history has
been forgotten in the United States. i don’t think children get civics lesson anymore
They’re not taught to revere some of these constitutional principles
as they were in my mother’s time, growing up in the 1930s, for example, the
education I received was very different. In the United States we have seen incursions that have miseducated the public, such as the adoption of other words under God in our Pledge of Allegiance, that tie piety to patriotism,
putting the motto In God We Trust on money and saying it’s it’s a second
motto for our nation. That all happened in the 1950s, and we get continually
asked these questions by the media and the public: How can you say that America
isn’t a religious nation? Our motto is ‘in god we trust’
and we always say “Well, it was a Johnny-come-lately, it doesn’t belong there, it’s not even accurate.” To be accurate it would have to say
” in God some of us trust” and that would be a very silly motto. It’s exclusionary and I think this these things have miseducated the public and we need to remind them of our secular heritage. (AL) On the surface of it ,that having the national motto being ‘in god we trust’, kind of seems like a minor religious privilege, a concession to the majority . How does that trickle down into
tangible restrictions on religious freedom? (ALG) Well, it is used as precedent to
excuse everything else that entangles religion and government, and we know this
from 41 years of experience dealing with public officials and dealing with a hostile public.
They all turn to these kinds of examples to justify worse violations.
The symbolic violations are among the worst in terms of the harm
they create, and they’re among the top 10, or 3 even, that we get complaints of from
our many members around the nation. And it’s it’s justified a lot of violations and it’s a lot of ignorance that we need to confront, and I would
also blame religion, the religiosity of the American public, in my opinion, is
how we got to where we are today politically. It has dummied down our
nation, it isn’t that surprising that we would have a president who plays with
facts and talks about, you know alternates facts and fake news, when
religion is basically the original fake news. And when people are taught to
believe it’s fine to believe anything that makes you feel good. It doesn’t
matter whether there’s evidence for it. (AL) Okay, and for those who don’t share that perspective, for that those who are religious, either culturally or in terms of belief, how can they be persuaded to support separation of church and state? How can they be shown that that’s good for them, as well? particularly if they are a member of the
currently privileged majority? (ALG) Separation of church and state is good for everybody. All we have to do is look at history to see whenever you get one sect in power, it goes after all the others.
So, we have seen historically all kinds of discrimination, religious wars, pogroms,
you name it. against the wrong religion. To
be Catholic used to be practically a crime in some countries and in some
colonies here in the United States, much less to be Jewish.
The Protestants have been themselves discriminated against when they’re
living in what is basically a Catholic theocracy. The only way to protect
everybody is to have a neutral government. And we have a bumper sticker
at the Freedom From Religion Foundation that’s applicable here in the United States:
Protect the First Amendment – It Protects You. So we all can live in harmony if our government stays out of the religion business. But once it enters religion, as I said,
watch out! (AL)What role do you think that schools can play in improving the public understanding of religious freedom or the separation of church and state?
(ALG) Well, in the United States I would say better civics lessons about the Constitution and how it was developed. I guess that, globally, when we study history and study the history of law,
history of democracy, it’s very important that the negative role that religion has played, in suppressing rights and starting wars,
be objectively analyzed and discussed. There shouldn’t be this assumption
that everybody is religious, and perhaps that doesn’t happen in some of the other nations, certainly happens in the United States, where we’re just sort of excluded,
non-believers are just excluded. It’s just assumed everybody is religious.
Tthat’s why politicians and every speech with “God bless you”, even liberal ones.
It becomes kind of a political gotcha issue, for most politicians in the United States,
to wear religion on their sleeves. (AL) So how does the FFRF reclaim or
defend freedom of/from religion? (ALG) Well we spent 41 years trying to
reeducate the public and politicians about the secular roots of our government
and our nation. And we now have a strategic response team
and we also are starting to do much more lobbying in Congress. And we also have
our members lobbying at their state legislators when these bills come up, that are all based on the lie that America is a Christian nation or that America is based on God.
And our members are continually educating about the importance of keeping religion out of government, and and why that developed in the United States, looking at the colonies, and all the persecution in most
of the thirteen original colonies. And so much of the religious warfare strife
persecution in the old world. And it’s just going to take continual education
to debunk this idea that religious liberty is something that you use as a weapon against someone else.
(AL) Okay thanks so much Before you go, we always like to
ask our guests for some recommendations Are there any books or films you’d recommend, that do a good job of exploring freedom of religion? (ALG) We would like to see a film made about the McCollum case of 1948, which was the
first lawsuit before the Supreme Court, in which the court got rid of religious
instruction in the public schools. And there’s a wonderful book, by Vashti McCollum,
who took that case, called One Woman’s Fight. And hard to get now, but it’s as readable as a novel,
and it really explains the toll that is exacted on schoolchildren,
when religion creeps into our public schools. And it should be made into movie.
It would be a very good movie. We’re working on that. Another book, that will be coming out in April or May, is called Unamerican, and it’s by Andrew Seidel,
who is our Director of Strategic Response. And he’s a constitutional attorney who works for us. And he explores not only the judeo-christian nation myth, but he also explores why the Bible itself doesn’t jive with American principles, that are found in the Bill of Rights.
So, it’s called “Unamerican” (AL) Okay. Well we’ll put what links we can in the show notes the. Annie Laurie, thank you so much for
taking the time to speak to us today and for exploring these issues with us.
Before you go is there anything you’d like to plug? (ALG) A couple of things I would like to plug.
I would like to thank you, and thank NSS for what it does, and has been doing
for more for than a century, and to ask listeners to come out of the closet,
as atheists or agnostics and secularists, and do what they can to support others.
And we work right now with Center for Inquiry and Bonya Ahmed, the widow of Avijit Roy,
to help endangered free thinkers around the world, where it does become a
matter of life and death, because they live in what’s essentially, usually,
an Islamist based theocracy. And we have seen people murdered,
we have seen people jailed, we have seen great injustice toward non-believers
who are called blasphemers or apostates. And the Freedom From Religion Foundation
is working to try to actually get people out of these
countries, or help them once they leave, and we see this is going to become a
bigger issue. And we’re seeing more countries engaged in persecution of
atheists and agnostics. And this is something that you can support through
the Freedom From Religion Foundation, or a group of your choice, or maybe start
doing something in your own group. We work with an international group, that
kind of vet the needs, and so we’re secure that we’re helping
people who really need that help. But it’s going to become a bigger issue and it’s something I’m very concerned about. (AL)Thanks for sharing that, and
we’ll have links in the show notes. Anne Laurie, thank you very much.
(ALG) Thank you. (AL) I hope you found that interesting, listener.
I think what Annie Laurie Gaylor and the Freedom From Religion Foundation show is that it is
possible to combat religious freedom, or secularism, from a specific religious, or
in this case irreligious perspective, as long as you still defend it as a right
for everyone. You can fairly promote your own
worldview and still be a consistent activist for freedom of and from religion,as long as you don’t expect that worldview to then be privileged. This is a series leading up to our major conference: Secularism 2019 – Reclaiming Religious Freedom. That’s in May at the Tower Hotel in Central London. Tickets are just £50
and members get an additional 50% discount. You can find out more about the speakers and book your tickets at secularism.org.uk/2019 Before I go I normally ask my guests for any book recommendations they have, and I’ll put links in the show notes.
But if you’re looking for a good read that explores themes relevant to secularism, then we
also have a collection of fiction and nonfiction reviews on our website at
secularism.org.uk/reviews you can find God, Guides and Guns, a review of
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, my review of Christian Nation by Frederic C. Rich, and reviews of nonfiction books like The Rage: The Vicious Circle of Islamist and Far-right Extremism This podcast is produced by the
National Secular Society. The NSS works for the separation of religion and state and the equal respect for everyone’s human rights, so no one is either advantaged or disadvantaged
on account of their beliefs. Make a stand for freedom fairness and human rights
by joining the NSS today. Until next time, goodbye.

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